Evangelicalism's emergence as a cultural force has, to an unprecedented degree, placed the concept of the battle between good and evil on the public agenda. Once concerns with evil entered the public imagination, evangelicals could no longer control how people chose to respond to the evil that many agreed existed. It was not only the responses that could not be controlled, however.
While evangelicals have long recognized the potential for evangelism in film, filmmakers have similarly seen the entertainment possibilities in the stories ofevangelicalism's dark side. Thus, while evangelicals and other conservative Christians may feel that stories and images of supernatural battles between good and evil in some sense belong to them, they cannot control how these stories will be used, and reconfigured, once they enter the realm of the media and particularly the entertainment media.
Stories of the end times may have been popularized recently with the rise of evangelicalism, but the ideas go back to the roots of Christianity. While conservative religion has employed the narratives of the end times in the context of updated images and story lines, the images most often used in popular cultural representations of the end times—notably, those of demons, hell, and the afterlife—date to medieval depictions such as that of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting, The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562).
At that point in history, religious scholars were devoted to explanations of the supernatural realm that they believed was very much a reality. As scientific knowledge increased in the age of the Enlightenment, however, cosmological definitions fell out of favor in both formal theology and in religious artwork. The fictional depictions of demons and hell found in popular culture therefore visually refer to the point in history when the "truth" of supernatural beings was very much a part of Christian orthodoxy.
Yet as Max Weber argued, with modernity the world became "disenchanted": people no longer viewed the world as a place where spirits and forces freely roamed. The unexplained mysteries that were once ascribed to the supernatural realm had increasingly come to be the subjects of scientific debunking. Supernatural wonders were transformed into vehicles of amusement, repackaged as entertainment for the skeptical yet curious urban public of the nineteenth century.
Some instances of the contemporary borrowing and reconfiguring of religious elements in popular culture are more obvious than others. One recent example of this appears in a popular computer game, Diablo II. When this game first hit the stores in July 2000, it sold 184,000 copies in a single day and sold more than a million by the end of its first month. On the Web page devoted to this game, the following origin myth is offered:
Since the beginning of time, the forces of Order and Chaos have been engaged in an eternal struggle to decide the fate of all creation. That struggle has now come to the Mortal Realm … and neither Man, Demon, nor Angel will be left unscathed.
In Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, you will return to follow the path of Baal, the last of the Prime Evils, into the Barbarian Highlands of the North. Traveling with hordes of demonic minions, Baal intends to corrupt the powerful Worldstone, which protects the whole of the mortal plane from the forces of Hell. You will face a new series of quests and challenges to prevent the vile minions of the underworld from destroying the world of sanctuary.
Demons, hell, and of course Diablo and Baal all draw upon what we have identified as the "dark side" of evangelicalism. Here, preteens are invited to participate in a role-playing spiritual battle in the realm of entertainment. They seek to defeat evil beings in a battle that, despite its Christian overtones, makes no reference to Christian categories that are central to evangelicals, such as Jesus Christ and personal salvation.
Of course, evangelicals are savvy to the appeal and entertainment value of evangelicalism's dark side, as well. A company that competes with that of Diablo II's creators is called, appropriately enough, Eternal Warriors. They released their computer game, The War In Heaven, a full year earlier than Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo II. Like Diablo II, The War in Heaven engages young people in a first-person, role-playing battle, complete with rapid-fire gunfighting and hand-to-hand combat. The game Archangel, released in 2001, while it is less violent, is another variation on the theme, allowing young people to participate in the battle against Lucifer while adopting different characters.
While many in evangelical circles see a clear difference between Diablo II and its evangelical competitors The War in Heaven and Archangel, the distinctions may not be so obvious to all. As noted, the imagery and narrative share some distinct similarities. Moreover, all of these games are available for purchase on eBay. Christian gaming discussion groups, newsletters, and magazines devote far more time to discussing WarCraft III and Diablo II than The War in Heaven or other "Christian" games.
Some on Christian gaming discussion groups even make it a point to claim the more popular games for evangelism purposes. As one fan writes, "If you're like me, a Christian that enjoys Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs [role-playing games], you've probably talked to friends and gotten a response like, `D&D? Isn't that satanic?' It's my opinion that that is not inherently true. This club's purpose is to meet other Christian RPG players and talk of ways to get Jesus more into the game to reach our fellow gamers, as well as other gaming topics."
The young man who manages the site on which this statement is posted seeks to lay claim to games like Dungeons and Dragons, transforming them into vehicles for evangelism. For him and for others in evangelicalism, Dungeons and Dragons is not so far removed from A Thief in the Night: both are vehicles that may open the door to the presentation of a salvation message for unbelievers. But of course, there are many in evangelicalism who are at least as interested in drawing distinctions between what is truly consistent with the faith and what is not, and for whom popular culture is itself a battleground. This is illustrated by the following exchange on an AOL Teen Chat site called CyberChristians.
"Seven was awesome," wrote Sarah of the commercially released murder mystery/horror film Seven, which starred Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. In full, she wrote: "Seven was awesome it was about the 7 deadly sins. It got pretty nasty in parts, though! It is a must see. If anybody out there has seen it I would love to talk to them about it." Her statement was answered within a half hour with the following not-so-subtle rebuttal:
Seems like we're talking to each other a lot ha? I didn't see [Seven] and don't plan to. The reason why is because it's full of all the things I'm trying to stay away from. Mainly "sin," which is what it's based on ironically. Just be careful what you recommend—sometimes we lead each other astray in things and don't even know it. I guess, if you could picture it—do you think you could bring someone young to a movie like that and expect them to shrug off those things?
Probably not. That's why it's rated R, so younger minds won't be subject to that stuff. Take a look at Romans 1:28-32-it basically lists off all those things that are in that movie. God lists those as bad. I'm a fan of movies, don't get me wrong-I just don't want to see people being spiritually brought down through the things we hold as good. Look also at 1 Corinthians 8:9-13.
In his Grace, Rob
Unconvinced and undeterred, Sarah replied to Rob the next day:
I do not think there is any thing wrong with the movie [Seven]. It really explains why you should not perform these sins or other sins. Although I do not believe that the language they use is appropriate the movie in general is good. I really think you should give the movie a second chance it is not as bad as most people think. Please write back I would appreciate it!
Peace, Love and Christianity, Sarah
Sarah asserts her own evangelical interpretation of this commercially released film. Like the Dungeons and Dragons fan, Sarah claims that the horror film Seven could alert people to the harrowing consequences of a sinful life. As such, it holds potential for evangelism. She underscores her own religious commitment both in her recognition that the language may be "inappropriate," as well as in her new signature line: "Peace, Love and Christianity." In this way, she identifies herself as an "insider," on the same side of the "battle" as Rob is. Yet despite Sarah's closing invitation, Rob chose not to reply.
The argument between Rob and Sarah echoes the tensions in evangelicalism, and in other parts of Christendom as well, that make it difficult for adherents to decide how to view popular culture. The entertainment media often borrow stories and elements from Christianity. Whether or not they value its potential for evangelism (and some actually do), they clearly value its ability to entertain and hence to draw audiences and profits.
Recently, similar discussions about films highlighting the supernatural have divided adherents within Christianity. The films Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings and The Two Towers have each been fertile areas for the discussion of the role of story, myth, and supernatural powers in relation to faith and practices.
Some evangelicals and fundamentalists, like those cited in this chapter's opening paragraph, view these recent films as highly troublesome. As one evangelical wrote on a list-serve devoted to the discussion of media, culture, and religion: "The Potter books … are based on the practice of witchcraft as a way of life. It's very dark stuff, sweetly packaged." The problem, according to this writer, is that the Harry Potter books and films assume that witchcraft is good or at least benign, and evangelicals take the supernatural realm far too seriously to dismiss these things lightly.
Others within the Christian fold may have been similarly convinced of the reality of evil and of supernatural powers, yet they remained unconvinced that a fictional film could influence peoples' beliefs and practices. "As far as the book being a kiddie manual for witchcraft," wrote one youth minister from Australia, "I suspect that we'll see about as many serious attempts from kids to get into witchcraft as we saw attempts from kids to fly around England on giant peaches in the seventies. Kids actually understand imagination."
Clearly, this position is more trusting of the largely preteen audience, a group that has been often acknowledged as highly sophisticated with regard to the entertainment media. A third position stems from the second, arguing that there are ways to view the films metaphorically, connecting them with the values affirmed in young people's own religious/spiritual traditions, whatever those might be. Such popular cultural stories like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings might be used as, in the words of one young woman, "entry points to discussions about life, meaning, spirituality, etc."
She writes of Lord of the Rings "The corrupting power of the ring for even the best of intentions [is one such entry point that raises questions, such as:] Where do I find the strength for resisting corruption exhibited by Gandalf and Galadriel? When might I be in danger of becoming ensnared by the desire for power like Borimir? What can Borimir tell us about Judas and ourselves?" In this way, she offers an illustration of how popular cultural texts can be interpreted through a lens of faith or tradition. This stance rests upon the assumptions that viewers interpret fantasy as fantasy, that there are many possible interpretations for media symbols and narratives, and that young people might reaffirm their own traditions and beliefs as they learn to apply this lens to all popular cultural texts.
Affirming this position and that of Sarah (the Seven fan), some have argued that such "reframing" of cultural materials is actually a sign of religious vitality. Many, however, were uneasy with the centrality of supernatural power, witchcraft, and sorcery depicted in both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.
Lynn Schofield Clarkis a youth minister and assistant research professor at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. From Angels to Aliens can be purchased at Amazon.com and other book retailers.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Also appearing on our site today:
Are Evangelicals Fueling Teen Fascination With the Powers of Darkness? | The horror of Buffy Summers and the fantasy of Harry Potter draw from conservative religious imagery while fans feed on conservative opposition, says the author of From Angels to Aliens.
Oxford University Press has more information on From Angels to Aliens, including the introduction, first chapter, and index.
Lynn Schofield Clark's website at the University of Colorado also has information about the book, including Clark's speaking schedule.
The Boulder Daily Camera also examined Clark's book.
See our earlier coverage of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Matrix, Harry Potter, "mooks and midriffs," and other pop culture phenomena.
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